Low-Flow Shower Heads: How to Choose

Thanks to innovative new technology, today’s super-efficient low-flow showerheads save water, reduce your energy bills, and still feel good to use.

You’ve heard it for years: Save water by replacing your old showerhead with a low-flow model. But if you’re like a lot of people, you may have ignored the message. That’s because you’re likely thinking of the early low-flow versions, which worked by simply restricting output or pumping the stream full of air. While that saved water, it didn’t make for a very satisfying shower experience.

These days, thank goodness, it’s different. With one of the new generation of ultra-efficient showerheads, you can reduce shower water use—and energy consumption, since we’re talking about water you pay to heat—by up to 50% while still enjoying a luxurious, powerful spray.

New technologies, bigger savings

Before 1992, showerheads pumped out five or more gallons per minute (gpm), accounting for nearly 20% of indoor water use. Federal law cut that to 2.5 gallons, but the latest water-saving models do better still.  Delta’s H2Okinetic Technology manipulates droplet size and direction to make only 1.6 gpm feel drenching. That’s a 36% reduction over a standard low-flow showerhead. Bricor uses a patented vacuum chamber that aerates and compacts water under pressure to deliver an intense blast with 1.25 gpm or less.

Other manufacturers use laminar flow, which puts out dozens of parallel streams instead of an aerated spray, creating the sensation of more water. The type you choose depends on personal preference, but at $10 to $150, any of these can quickly pay for themselves in reduced water-heating costs. You may even be able to score one for free with a rebate through your local utility.

First, check your plumbing

While replacing your existing showerhead with one of these super-high-efficiency models can be as easy as screwing in a light bulb, it’s a good idea to first assess your plumbing. The big concern is the potential for scalding or getting hit with an icy blast. Because less water is flowing through the showerhead, sudden fluctuations in temperature can be more extreme.

Homes built after the mid-1990s usually have an automatic temperature compensating (ATC) valve installed as part of the shower plumbing inside the wall. These protect against rapid changes in temperature when water is being used elsewhere in the house.

Quick check: If your shower has an old two-handle faucet, chances are it does not have an ATC valve. (Neither do most new two-handle systems.) In that case, simply sticking on a low-flow showerhead to save water is a bad idea. “The only appropriate way to retrofit a shower with a two-handle faucet is to eliminate the outdated faucet and install a new valve and showerhead,” says Shawn Martin, technical director of the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute. 

Other ways to pump up shower efficiency

In addition to offering low-flow nozzles, manufacturers have come up with other ways to make showering more efficient. Water Pik’s EcoFlow, for example, has a “pause” button that let you to stop and restart the water at the same temperature—perfect for taking a Navy shower. That’s when you wet yourself down, turn off the water while you lather up, and then turn it back on to rinse.

Common practice on naval ships, where fresh water supplies are limited, this technique uses as little as 3 gallons, compared with the typical “Hollywood shower” that uses 60 gallons every 10 minutes. That amounts to a savings of 15,000 gallons a year per person.

Of course, the danger of all these new low-flow showerheads is that you’ll be tempted to linger too long in your own private Niagara. Several companies have come out with shower timers to nudge habitual drenchers.

The Shower Manager cuts the taps when time’s up, and Eco Drop Shower, a stall unit by Italian designer Tommaso Colia, purports to save water not from the top down but from the bottom up. As you shower, a pattern of concentric circles embedded in the floor rises up to the point of discomfort, forcing you to exit. Just make sure to turn off the water first.